In Jane Austen’s novels, we discover the plight of younger sons who because of the English primogeniture laws, could not inherit their father’s estate and must find their own way in the world. Colonel Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice and Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey come immediately to mind. This father to first son inheritance tradition is the axis of the social structure of British society and is tightly bound to its restrictions. Historian Rory Muir explores this dilemma and the courses available to younger sons in his new history book, Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen’s England. Using Austen’s characters, her own family, and historical figures as examples, we are taken on a journey through the era to discover what options were available to younger sons of “good families” to find an acceptable profession and earn an independent living.
A portrait of Jane Austen’s England told through the career paths of younger sons—men of good family but small fortune.
In Regency England, the eldest son usually inherited almost everything while his younger brothers, left with little inheritance, had to make a crucial decision: what should they do to make an independent living? Rory Muir weaves together the stories of many obscure and well-known young men, shedding light on an overlooked aspect of Regency society. This is the first scholarly yet accessible exploration of the lifestyle and prospects of these younger sons. Continue reading